Minnesota Orchestra brings Strauss down to earth with 'Also sprach Zarathustra'

Still from '2001: A Space Odyssey'MGM

June 02, 2017

A lot of people are familiar with Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra, as Minnesota Orchestra violist Sam Bergman pointed out onstage at Orchestra Hall last night. "Some people," he joked, "even know it goes on longer than 90 seconds."

Those first 90 seconds are the ones heard in Stanley Kubrick's classic 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's one of the most iconic uses of classical music in all of film history, and you have to think that Strauss would appreciate the widespread recognition of his orchestral majesty.

On the other hand, he'd also probably appreciate the fact that conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto — making his Minnesota Orchestra debut, stepping in for an ill David Zinman — carried right on when the audience burst into applause after that epic intro.

Those who weren't familiar with the remainder of the piece, which runs just over a half-hour in total, discovered that Kubrick's musical cut was just as important as the famous visual cut from flying bone to satellite.

The remainder of Also sprach Zarathustra — an 1896 tone poem inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophical novel — wanders through distant and openly emotive realms, reflecting the hero's contemplative wanderings. It would be rich sauce indeed for the chilly Kubrick, who soundtracked the rest of his film with eerie Ligeti, restrained Khachaturian, and ironic Johann Strauss II.

With no film in sight, though, Prieto and the band were free to revel in Strauss's Romantic glory. They imparted similar flavor to the evening's opening selection: the overture to Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser (1845). That piece has also achieved pop-culture fame, through its inclusion in the 1957 Warner Bros. cartoon What's Opera, Doc?

Bergman referred to the evening's fare as "the Industrial Light & Magic of the music world," and indeed, orchestral color has never been quite so vivid as it was in the half-century spanning those two works. Tonight and tomorrow, they'll be accompanied by a third piece: Ernest Bloch's Schelomo (1916).

For last night, though, the program was short and sweet: the evening was part of the orchestra's "Symphony in 60" series, designed for accessibility. Not only was the program kept to a single intermission-less hour, it was preceded by a two-for-one happy hour featuring samples of Bauhaus Brew Labs beer — and followed by another opportunity for socialization and libation, this time onstage, with orchestra members. (Yes, they actually roll a bar onstage.)

Tickets are available for the performances tonight and tomorrow; if you're a bicyclist like me, you'll appreciate the expanded bike parking at the northeast corner of Symphony Hall. You can also enjoy tonight's performance from the comfort of your own home, or wherever else in the universe you'll be: we're broadcasting the show live on Classical MPR.

As you listen, see if tonight's audience makes the same slip and applauds at the conclusion of the orchestral crescendo in the "Convalescent" movement of Also sprach Zarathustra. Nope, that's not the end either! The piece actually continues on for about another 15 minutes, ending not with a bang but with a whisper.